Eagle population soars in Will County amid conservation efforts

With March Madness underway, one of the many thrills the NCAA Tournament has to offer is watching which team will be this year's Cinderella story.

In a FOX 32 Special Report, chief meteorologist Emily Wahls looked at a different kind of comeback story. It’s the one Mother Nature has playing out in the south suburbs.

The Will County Forest Preserve District is home to many different forms of wildlife, from choir frogs to ducks and eagles. This spring, it’s the eagle’s nature lovers are watching.

"So the comeback story is immense," Joel Craig, a volunteer at the Will County Forest Preserve District said. "I know it seems like an overnight sensation in this area, but because of the way they expand territory it’s been very incremental and to see them now this far south - this residential - has been really exciting."

When Craig is there, he spends his time keeping an eye on this.

"The one that we are looking at today is a brand-new nest," Craig said.

This year, the Will County Forest Preserve District is home to four eagle nests. That’s one more than usual.

"I think it’s got to be close to 8-feet tall. It’s really big," Craig said.

When they are first built, bald eagle nests are typically about four feet deep and five feet wide.

"They’re a conversation success story. This is a 50-year ongoing story that started with the banning of DDT with the Clean Water Act, the EPA," he said.

Developed in the 1940s, DDT was used to protect crops from insects and to protect people from insect-born diseases like malaria.

Three decades later, in 1972, the EPA issued a cancelation order for the insecticide citing DDT’s adverse environmental effects on wildlife and potentially people.

"It didn’t kill the eagles, but it made it so that their eggs wouldn’t hatch," said Bob Bryerton, program coordinator and bird expert at the Will County Forest Preserve District.

Bryerton explained how this toxin worked its way up the food chain to affect the eagles and their eggs.

"You’ve got an insect eating a little bit and it dies. Because it can’t handle it. Then the fish eat some insects and the fish survives because the fish isn’t going to die but then the eagle eats the fish and now all the insects that were in the fish and the eagle eats multiple fish," Bryerton said.

In the end, Bryerton said the DDT was making the eagle’s eggs brittle, causing them to crack and the eaglets not to hatch.

"For a long time, we didn’t have a lot of eagle nests in Illinois. It’s just within the last probably 10 years that the population has really kind of rebounded a lot," Bryerton said.

"These eagles, in my lifetime, were down to just a little over 400 nesting pairs, and the last count that I saw from fish and wildlife showed about 72,000 nesting pairs," Craig said.

As the eagle population continues to grow in the U.S., Bryerton said many of them are choosing Illinois as the place to build their nests.

Primarily because of all of our rivers, including the Des Plaines and Mississippi rivers.

"Illinois has the most eagles of any state in the lower 48 in the winter. The only state that has more than us is Alaska," Bryerton said.

So when will we see this? Once an eagle lays its eggs, it takes about 35 days for them to hatch.

"So when they’re born, they’re only 4-inches tall. That’s a teeny tiny little bird, so it does take them about two weeks before they are tall enough. You can actually start to see their heads over the rim of the nest," Craig said. "Eagles are awesome."

Bryerton and Craig said they expect the eggs in the four nests they are watching to be ready to hatch any time after March 23.

Follow their progress at the Will County Forest Preserve District's website.